Defense in Detail

John Kuester and Pat Sullivan, one of the two assistant coaches from last season along with Darrell Walker who’ll be on Kuester’s Pistons staff, traveled to North Carolina on Wednesday night to take part in the celebration that begins the 100th season of North Carolina basketball.

Both Kuester and Sullivan, of course, played under Dean Smith, and the brotherhood of Carolina basketball runs deep. They’ll serve as coaches for Friday night’s Alumni Game at the Smith Center before returning to Michigan and resuming the installation of their playbook and putting everything else in place in preparation for the Sept. 29 opening of training camp.

It was fascinating to watch them over the course of this week as Kuester and his staff, including ex-NBA head coach Brian Hill and new video coordinator Steve Hetzel, brought to Detroit by Kuester from Cleveland, went over their defensive concepts in intricate detail.

It served as phenomenal insight into the sophistication of modern NBA defenses, which is calculus to the algebra they were practicing a generation ago, complicated further by the rules change that bars defenders from standing in the lane without being arm’s length from an offensive player for more than three seconds.

An example of “intricate detail” without giving away state secrets: In closing out on open shooters, defenders will be instructed to sprint to cover the first two-thirds of the distance and then cover the final third with shortened, choppy steps. Now, that might be something that comes instinctively to good defenders – put yourself in a less vulnerable position to the drive as you draw nearer the ballhandler – but this year, it will be part of the defensive doctrine.

Another, and on this one, as one of the coaches pointed out, it’s not instinctive – in fact, defenders might have to fight their instincts at first: Conventional wisdom on defending the ball is to get in a stance with your feet evenly positioned and arms spread. The doctrine will be one foot in front of the other, the arm on the same side as the front foot tracing the ball, and the back foot remaining the back foot even as the offensive player feints left or right.

The coaches must have spent 45 minutes drilling among themselves on these things and a handful of other concepts – where the weak-side help should position themselves as the ball swings from the top to the strong side; how to ensure, as the weak-side post defender is darting out of the lane to avoid a three-second call, that he isn’t leaving himself vulnerable to a wing ballhandler specifically waiting for him to vacate the area; how to defend a cutter slicing down the lane after setting a screen out high.

Anybody watching who thought a roster rebuilt to pack more of an offensive punch combined with a coach whose most recent resume entry was Cleveland’s offensive maestro equates to an admission that defense is suddenly deemed less important at 6 Championship Drive would have disabused himself of such a notion.